Monday, January 20, 2014

Seymour Papert, a Roman Temple and EdTech today!

In 2009, I lived a childhood dream by visiting the Roman temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, Lebanon. The temple was built by many generations of Roman engineers, artisans and slaves. The stones used could not be found in that valley location, so the Romans brought them by sea, used elephants and slaves to drag them up a mountain and then down to the right location. There, they would be carved and set in place. The grandeur of the pillars and the intricate work still visible today spoke of the glory that the Romans wanted the place to have. I remember thinking that we had the technology to execute such grand projects in a much shorter time. It was the ambition we lacked.
Some time later, I came across this video by Seymour Papert . In it, Papert shows the use of the Logo programming language to control a "turtle" either on the screen or on a physical surface. By manipulating the turtle, students can create shapes, animations or music that are personally meaningful. While doing this, they use mathematical concepts and discover some of their own maths.

Learning in this way, the students acquire a scientific mindset. They start with the desire to create something, they hypothesise a way of getting there and then observe the results. As in all computer programming tasks, it is likely that the first attempt will fail to some extent, though not completely. The student will want to "debug" his or her creation through a process of progressive refinement.

This differs from most classroom mathematics in a few important ways:
  1. The student is not being being taught alien concepts with the -often empty- promise that they will become useful at a later stage;
  2. The student is not either "right" or "wrong" but somewhere on the continuum between the two;
  3. The student does not need to check the answer with the teacher or in an answer key. S/he can see to what extent the creation on the screen corresponds to the design s/he had in mind; and, finally,
  4. The student has an incentive to go through the debugging process. After all, the creation is their own.

If you have watched the video, you will have noticed that the technology looks very primitive. Of course, computer technology has developed in power and ease of interaction since this video was made. Yet, much (thankfully, not all) of what passes as educational technology today has regressed since those days:
In most contemporary educational situations where children come into contact with computers the computer is used to put children through their paces, to provide exercises of an appropriate level of difficulty, to provide feedback, and to dispense information. The computer programming the child.” -- Seymour Papert, Mindstorms (cited in Audrey Watters, Visiting Seymour, 30 July, 2013.
As is the case with grand structures, we have the means to do better. It is the ambition that we lack!